Dipping Into the Well
February 2017 | by Elaine Kiziah
My journal may have saved my life.
As a 22-year-old in my first job after college, living in an unfamiliar city, I found myself feeling trapped in circumstances that seemed devoid of meaning and human connection. My future life looked bleak, and I began thinking about ending it.
This is solitary work we cannot do alone. — Ira Progoff
I don’t know if I would have actually acted on those thoughts, but I do know this: It was on the pages of my journal that I was able to access some wiser source within me that could see beyond the darkness of the moment and offer me an alternate solution. “If you are desperate enough to end your life,” that inner wisdom offered, “then you can take other drastic steps too. Leave your miserable job. Change your life. Find a therapist. Then see how you feel.”
Twenty-five years later, my life is full of meaning and connection, full of hope and joy — even amidst the kinds of loss and difficulty and struggle that are an inherent part of being human.
Journaling has been an important but sporadic practice for me over much of those 25 years. Freud described “love” and “work” as the two fundamental domains in life. My journal has repeatedly offered me solace and solutions for the challenges I’ve encountered in those realms, but what that looks like has changed considerably over time.
When I was 22, I thought happiness was about fixing my external circumstances. Maybe at the time it was, and certainly my journaling practice offered me concrete solutions for these external challenges — sometimes in blunt three word sentences like “Quit your job” and “Find a therapist.” As I started coming back to my journal more regularly, though, not just as a place to solve problems, but as a companion on my journey as a human being, I discovered that journaling can take me deeper and deeper.
Return again. Return again. Return to the land of your soul. — Schlomo Carlebach
Soon, journaling became (largely) about moving beyond life’s external challenges and instead turning inward, using my journal as a mirror to offer new insights and perspective. “Love” and “work” stopped being primarily about friendships and marriage, jobs and projects. Instead, I’ve used my writing for things like learning to love myself in a way that’s tender and unconditional. Learning to find the meaning and beauty in work that I could just as easily perceive as a burden. Learning to look for the sacred spark of humanity in everyone I encounter, including people who challenge me.
And that brings me to the latest phase in my spiritual journey, a new place my journal has let me glimpse over the last few years. Often, my writing now takes me deep into myself in ways that are truly moving. But when I’m really fortunate, it allows me to go even further. It allows me to transcend myself — an experience that has been so heartrendingly beautiful that it’s impossible to capture here in words.
Ira Progoff, creator of the groundbreaking Intensive Journal Process, offers a metaphor to describe what’s happening here, and I believe it’s a metaphor that aptly describes many spiritual practices, not just journaling. Doing this solitary work, he says — looking inward, and dropping ever more deeply into ourselves — is like dipping into a well. We each have our own well, in its own particular location, reflecting the unique details of our own particular lives — and we can only go down into our own wells, not the well of someone else’s experience. However, as we go further and further down, we ultimately encounter an underground stream that is the source of all the wells. “We are all connected here,” he writes, “in the unitary continuum of being.”
We use [our practice] as our instrument for making contact with and drawing upon the ultimate sources of life. — Ira Progoff
In the Spiritual Paths program at Chrysalis, we come back again and again to this quote from Progoff: “This is solitary work we cannot do alone.” We use it to express the reality that there is a special alchemy that takes place when people gather together to do inner work. I’ve certainly experienced that magic myself. Some of my most powerful journaling experiences have happened when writing in community — whether at the monthly Chrysalis journaling practice group or early in the morning before work, writing with a friend at a café.
I think that quote from Progoff has a second meaning, though. It is an invitation to dip ever deeper into the well of our experience and to surrender to what we find there that is larger than ourselves and that connects us all. I know that, for me, whether I’m the only person in the room or surrounded by a group of fellow seekers, the spiritual practice of journaling is most profound for me when I let it take me beyond myself. And the more often I do this, the more beautiful my life becomes.
I said that my journal may have saved my life. By that I mean not just the fact that I’m still alive today. What I mean is that I’m increasingly more alive as I pursue this practice and walk this expansive path I’m on.
Journaling may not be the spiritual practice that speaks to you, but whatever practice you choose, I trust that when you come back to it again and again, when you open and surrender yourself to it, it too will allow you to draw sustenance from that underground stream, whatever name you may give it. It too may save your life.
Elaine Kiziah, Ph.D., facilitates the monthly journaling practice group at Chrysalis and is Guiding Faculty for the Spiritual Paths program. A licensed psychologist and award-winning trainer, she coaches mission-based individuals and organizations to help them thrive. On February 19, she will lead a special workshop at Chrysalis: “Writing Your Self: Journaling as a Path to Joy”.